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Three Ways Online Education Is Making Higher Education More Affordable

By Cait Etherington
November 10, 2018
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In an era of rising student debts, a growing number of people are concluding that higher education simply isn’t worth the financial risk. While this may be understandable, as student debt loads rise, there is at least some hope on the horizon. Over the past decade, online education has rapidly expanded, and there is growing evidence that it is making higher education more affordable.

Earn While You Learn Is Now a Reality

One key reason online learning is making higher education more affordable is that it facilitates an earn-while-you-learn approach. In an era when student debt is at an an all-time high, this is especially critical.

In 2017, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve published a report on the current state of student debt. Their 2016-2017 survey found that, of respondents who had completed at least some education beyond high school, 43 percent acquired at least some debt to finance their education, and 53 percent of those who completed at least a bachelor’s degree acquired at least some debt in the process. The mean level of reported debt was $32,731, but as expected, those with graduate degrees were especially likely to report owing money. While most of the debt is on student loans, the survey found that credit card debts and other types of debts were also being accrued to make ends meet while pursuing higher education.

Online learning offers students the flexibility needed to more easily juggle work and higher education and avoid accruing high debt loads during their postsecondary education.

Housing and Travel Costs Are Eliminated

While the bulk of one’s student debt usually reflects the high cost of tuition, especially at private universities, on average, students spend between $15,000 and $20,000 per year to live and eat on campus. Students who live at home, however, can also find themselves paying a high cost to commute to school throughout the week.  Online degree programs eliminate the need to pay for on-campus or off-campus housing, campus meal plans, and/or travel. Over four years, this will result in a savings of $60,000 to $100,000.

Prestigious Degrees Without Ivy League Price Tags

The most exciting development over the five years has been the growing number of prestigious universities now embracing online learning and even fully online degrees. From MIT and Harvard to the University of Pennsylvania and Georgia Tech, top-ranked universities and programs continue to explore online learning as a way to bring high-quality and prestigious degrees to more students and at a more affordable price tag.

One notable program is the MITx MicroMasters. The MITx MicroMasters is a two-part program. In phase 1, students complete a series of five to six courses depending on the program from a list of four programs. At the end of the program, students must pass one or more proctored exams, depending on the program. Once they have completed the program and earned a MicroMasters from MITx, they can apply to complete a semester on campus in order to earn a MIT master’s degree. The first part of the program cost just $1080. By contrast, a full-year of tuition in the master’s in Supply Chain Management program on the MIT campus is currently $74,000. With student life fees, health insurance, and living expenses, the estimated cost of studying in the program on campus is $103,306 annually. This does not take into account the cost of potential lost wages. Credits earned in the MITx MicroMasters can now also be used to pursue a master’s degree through the Harvard Extension School. But MIT and Harvard are not alone.

Earlier this year, the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science launched an online master’s degree in partnership with Coursera. While the program won’t be free, the MCIT Online degree will cost only $26,300. This is a small fraction of the cost of completing a master’s degree in computer science on the UPenn campus. The Online Master of Science in Computer Science at Georgia Tech was developed in partnership with outside organizations Udacity and AT&T. The cost of the Georgia Tech master’s degree, however, is especially low. It is roughly $7,000, which is less than one-sixth of the $45,000 out-of-state students pay for Georgia Tech’s in-person computer science master’s degree.